The Wrong War:
Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan
By Bing West
Random House, $28.00, 307pp.
Review by David Forsmark
When Bing West talks about war, wise people listen. When Bing West says an American war effort isn’t working, we better listen.
West is no reflexive anti-war critic. If anything, this Marine’s reflexes go the other way. This grandfather (and father of a Force Recon Marine), still can’t stay away from the action, spending more time within the sound of the guns than few others not still wearing the uniform.
There is possibly no one in the world more qualified than Bing West to write a sobering account of the failure of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. First, he was a legendary Marine in his own right in Vietnam. Second, he wrote what many consider THE book on counter-insurgency in Vietnam, The Village. Third, he has served his country at the strategic level besides being on the front lines (look up Operation Stingray sometime).
And fourth, and most importantly, West has consistently provided an objective look at military operations since 9/11, through books and articles that are neither blind cheerleading, nor fatalistic anti-war agitprop—and his reporting an analysis have proved spot on.
In The Way Up, West lauded the successful invasion of Iraq, but in No True Glory, he showed both the valor of the troops and the folly of much of the command structure in the battles for Fallujah. In The Strongest Tribe, West showed the value of counter-insurgency in Iraq, while hammering Donald Rumsfeld for a lack of leadership, Bush for siding too long with Bremer, but finally detailing Petraeus's eventual success.
But when the author of The Village says that counter-insurgency is less successful in Afghanistan than Vietnam, that there is even less connection in remote Afghan villages to any central government or notion of one than there was in the darkest jungle in Indo-China, he speaks with authority.
“In Vietnam in the 1960s the set, the central government had well-established links connecting to the province and district levels. In Iraq after 2003, although the US military had to prop up district and provincial appointees for several years, thousands of educated and qualified Iraqis competed for the posts. Such pre-existing conditions for central governance were absent in Afghanistan.”
It’s not that West thinks we should abandon Afghanistan or should not have gone in the first place. The title The Wrong War refers to the kind of war we have chosen to fight in Afghanistan.
West chronicles how we have treated Afghanistan like welfare clients before welfare reform and given Afghans little incentive to do anything but hold their hands out. He gives credit where it's due, pointing out there has been some success with training Afghan forces, but that the basic COIN doctrine of hearts and minds has utterly failed with idiotic incentives-- and might not have worked even if perfectly executed.
“For years, soldiers like Cahir, had projected goodwill and brought resources. In return, the villagers were expected to reject the insurgents, or to risk death by informing against them. Instead, people like the mullah accepted the aid and remained neutral, waiting to see who would win on the field of battle. By giving away billions, we created a culture of entitlement rather than a rebellion against the radicals.
Preventing a terrorist takeover in Afghanistan is a sound goal. It would severely damage America's credibility if the Taliban reseized Kabul. If chaos spread into Pakistan, terrorists might seize one of Pakistan's nuclear bombs. Although the chances of that were slight, one bomb would incinerate tens of thousands of American civilians.
... Mistakenly, the generals agreed that defeating insurgency required our soldiers to be nation builders as well as war fighters.
Thus, our military became a gigantic Peace Corps, holding millions of shuras, drinking billions of cups of tea, and handing out billions of dollars for projects. Risk in battle was avoided because generals proclaimed that killing the enemy could not win the war. Senior officials fantasized that the war would be won by protecting and winning over the population. The tribes however, were determined to remain neutral, while the Afghan president tolerated corruption and ineffectiveness. The futile effort to build a democracy diverted the energies of our soldiers and weakened their martial spirit.”
But even nation building does not require the ridiculous extremes the generals have gone to with Rules of Engagement that make war fighting next to impossible. In story after story, West chronicles how soldiers and Marines are required to put themselves at a tactical disadvantage, or allow the enemy to escape, rather than risk—not guarantee, but risk—civilian casualties. In fact, the rules create an incentive to use human shields—and for the populace to cooperate with the enemy as it’s the only risk free strategy for them
“Under the rules of engagement, the insurgents were free to commute to work safely, often bringing women and children in the van. Some fighters, while talking on Icoms, stood in the open surrounded by women, knowing the Americans wouldn't shoot. To attack a vehicle required two independent sources -- say, a visual sighting of a weapon and a voice intercept from inside the van. This was practically impossible.”
“Afghanistan was singularly different from any prior insurgency. Far from employing sticks of coercion of any sort, the Western coalition offered only aid in sympathy to hostile villagers. The United States possessed precision firepower, with sensors that tracked any individual out-of-doors. Yet in 2010, less than 5% of aircraft sorties dropped a single bomb, despite over 100 reports of troops in contact daily. This forbearance was without historical precedent. The coalition imposed upon itself the strictest rules in the history of insurgent warfare.”
Even worse, perhaps, is that when terrorists are captured, there is nothing to be done with them, thanks to a corrupt system, perhaps, but also because of the timidity of the rules America insists the war must be fought under.
However, coalition and Afghan rules covering crime and punishment lacked purpose, consistency, and reliability. A few kilometers south of Jakarta, and an eleven-year-old boy often waved at passing patrols. The Marines took to chatting with the boy, who pointed out a trail that Taliban occasionally used. A few weeks later, the Taliban executed him and his brothers, sisters, mother, and father. Although shocked neighbors knew the identities of the gang that had gone to the farm in the middle of the day, no one would testify.
The tragedy illustrated the disquieting truth; American military doctrine didn't know how to confront evil.... The American military and judicial systems were so tied up in political knots that in Afghanistan there were no coalition trials for murderers or terrorists. If they renounced the insurgency, the coalition would give them jobs. Worse, Afghans as a society denied that fellow Afghans were capable of evil. The locals knew the killers. But there was no penalty for murder if committed in the name of Islam.
Among the book’s most gripping chapters is the story of the ill-conceived and ill-fated Operation Dancing Goat (which I’m sure is informally known as goat-something-else among those who participated. Here, the Rules of Engagement and brass with no respect for the enemy’s capabilities, nearly led to a huge disaster, save for the unbelievable heroism of one Marine.
The Marines were assigned to attend a shura (think powwow with tea as the peace pipe) with an Imam for whom they had built a mosque recently. Despite objections that the plan left their east flank open, and that was the flank directly leading to Pakistan where Taliban and al Qaeda were hold, up, the Marines were sent anyway, with a full complement of Afghan soldiers and border police.
They were ambushed by a large force, and Sgt. Dakota Meyer rescued wounded soldiers while inflicting punishment on the enemy over and over again. As West explains:
For a man to charge into fire once requires grit that is instinctive in few men; to do so a second time, now knowing what awaits you, requires inner resolve beyond instinct; to repeat a third time is courage above and beyond any call of duty; to go in a fourth time is to know you will die; to go in a fifth time is beyond comprehension.
Myer’s performance was the greatest act of courage in the war, because he repeated it, and repeated it, and repeated it.
But even while Marines and Afghans were being gunned down, they could not get approval for a fire mission. After the goat… rodeo… was over, Meyer, a man any platoon would want to have as part of its fighting force, had to be removed from the battlefield, his rage at what had happened was just too great.
West does allow that General David Petraeus, upon taking over in Afghanistan has allowed for more aggression against the bad guys—particularly through Special Forces operations.
Conventional combat troops, however, are still overly hampered with their nation-building mission. And Petraeus still answers to Admiral Mullen, who answers to Barack Obama—whose Attorney General Eric Holder stands ready to leap into action against any soldier who makes a mistake.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen, was fond of saying quote we can't kill our way to victory." That was political drivel. If the Taliban weren't killing people, there wouldn't be 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan. It was comparable to a police chief saying, "Arrests are not the solution to crime" -- a vacuity sure to result in fewer arrests. War centered upon killing. The grunts knew that, even if their own generals did not. Killing was not the solution, but it was the means to the solution.
When generals bemoaned killing, they were trying to make themselves seem morally and intellectually enlightened, while indicating their shallow understanding of what their own grunts were doing day after day.
But while The Wrong War effectively chronicles the problems, blunders, and just plain cluelessness about human nature that the Afghanistan War has produced, it is, like all Bing West books, at its core a tribute to the young men who take up arms for their country’s cause.
What the film critic dubbed “vague notions about honor and patriotism" are the lifeblood of any great nation. It is an elitist conceit to believe that soldiers join the military for a “drug high” or because they lack job opportunities. The majority of enlisted soldiers come from mid- and upper-class neighborhoods. 98% graduate from high school or have an equivalency degree. Officers largely come from neighborhoods in the top one-fifth of household incomes. Our troops don't volunteer to get a thrill or a job; they have better opportunities.
Yes, soldiers fight for their comrades.... But the reason most grunts volunteer to serve -- before they ever meet their comrades -- is out of a desire to test themselves and to serve as our guardians (although they won't admit it). After one hundred patrols, they know the difference between theory and reality. None remain naïve, some become cynical, and most return to the States grateful for what we have and doubtful about how much we can change others.
Recently, David Horowitz wrote a seminal article “Why I am not a Neo-Conservative” expressing doubt that creating democracies in the Muslim world is even possible, much less a viable national goal-- “Because of these nation-building delusions we are still mired in Afghanistan — now the longest war in American history.”
The Wrong War is the evidence that such delusions are a waste of American blood, and as West writes, they serve to sap what’s left of our martial spirit. It’s time for conservatives to stop the reflexive cheerleading and take a long hard look at our Afghanistan policy.